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Friday, January 08, 2021

E pluribus unum

Constantino Brumidi, 1808-1880
Wikimedia Commons, public domain
Capitol dome detail: E pluribus Unum

A detail from Auden, right for the hour--

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

                      --a very high call to the poet in hard times,
                        from Auden's great poem, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats"

Blessed are the peacemakers
Resist divisiveness.
E pluribus unum.


  1. For ages I refused to look up the exact meaning of e pluribus unum, preferring my own wholly detached whimsy: It rains on everyone.

    I'm a great Auden enthusiast but this one seems just a little too detached. Recent events seem to demand a choice, even if we keep it to ourselves. This poem, addressed only to poets, could be construed as: maintain the status quo. But suppose there is no status quo.

    It raises an earlier choice: how relevant would the Sermon on the Mount have been in 1939? Bertrand Russell, not the most obvious reference in this context, wrote contemporaneously that war should be avoided at all costs. Even total submission was preferable. A very tough row to hoe.

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  3. I don't see forging down into the black as status quo... And surely these lines attack the status quo:

    Intellectual disgrace
    Stares from every human face,
    And the seas of pity lie
    Locked and frozen in each eye.


    What Auden do you especially like? I somehow did not know that you are an Auden fan... Such an interesting person. I saw him, I think, the year before he died. Face like a paper bag that has been crumpled many times over many years.

    Beati sunt. Yes, a very tough call from the Sermon on the Mount, and also the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. But history tells us that men do not need any encouragement toward war, and that war is always with us. Surely the world is always broken, always in need of the saving of shards and of kintsugi.

    1. I have to say that I've never had a love for politics, and I have an allergy to politicians of all parties. My preference is Twain on politics. Moreover, I feel it is impossible to discuss anything at the moment unless you are fully aligned with the people you're talking to because of the great morass of fabulation, lies, jargon, refusal to question assumptions, deception, exaggeration, wanton speech, lack of coherent thought, sophistry, etc. that we are currently sinking into as surely as a dinosaur in a tar pit.

    2. Or Yeats himself: "I think it right, in times like these/The poet's mouth be shut....". And of course he did not follow that counsel, did he?

      I find it hard to discuss the current situation (November through January) in good temper. I do know a few persons with whom I do not wholly agree on politics, yet with whom I can discuss politics unemotionally. It is true that during the last four years, at least, it has been unprofitable to discuss politics even with those one agrees with. I would say more, I would say why, but I fear I'd be illustrating my point more than justifying it.

    3. Someone's obituary of Auden quoted Stravinsky: "Pretty soon we'll have to unfold him to see who it is." Was it heavy smoking that did that? I tried to acquire a taste for Auden, owing to Randall Jarrell's advocacy, but somehow it didn't take. Bits and pieces stick in my memory, but I can say that for many poets not regarded as distinguished.

      (E.g., just for its oddity, a bit from a long narrative poem in ottava rima by John Masefield "A Port Mahon baboon/Would make more soul than you have, with a spoon.")

    4. Hah, yes, it's a fearsome risk, illustrating that point!

      I feel as if I just know the usual Auden poems, In Praise of Limestone, the Yeats in memoriam poem, Beaux Arts, etc.

      Ottava rima is so variable! Comic or serious...I was just thinking about using it again.

      Yes, I find it hard also. And there seems to be some pressure in job situations to proclaim disapproval--even in a wee place like Cooperstown.

      I need to go visit your blog... I've just been stressed out (about other things.) See you there!

    5. My immediate choice was Limestone because I lived just a few steps away from that phenomenon; marvelling that rain passing through air creates carbonic acid which sculpts that unresisting white cheese - it hardly qualifies as stone - into shapes locally known as clints. But you have forestalled me and I refuse to be obvious.

      How about The Novelist:

      Encased in talent like a uniform
      The rank of every poet is well known;
      They can amaze us like a thunderstorm,
      Or die so young, or live for years alone.

      They can dash forward like hussars: but he
      Must struggle out of his boyish gift and learn
      How to be plain and awkward, how to be
      One after whom none think it worth to turn..."

      'Tis I, that plain and awkward fellow, and there is worse; to be a failed novelist is also to be futile, the mouldy cherry atop the over-sweetened icing. Thank God for newspapers and their hard carapace of cynicism.

    6. Oh, I did not know! That's wonderful. I am picturing you from now on in a magical landscape.

      If you include the rest of the poem, well, the versatile novelist is peculiarly Christ-like, suffering all the wrongs of man. And the imprisoned poets die young or live long alone. Rather sad prospects!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.